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Medieval Mystery Plays: Cain and Abel
By Mary Parrack
Paper given at the Fifth Annual Graduate Student Symposium: Language and Communication in the Middle Ages: the Visual, the Lyrical, the Liturgical, the Legal, the Dramatic, the Kinetic, the Spatial, Translation, Lingua Franca, and Literacy (University of North-Texas, 2010)
Abstract: Medieval mystery plays were cycles of plays, covering salvation history from the Creation to the Last Judgment, which were performed in England during the late Middle Ages. During a time when neither the Bible nor the church services were in English, local guilds brought Biblical stories into the streets and into everyday speech. These plays communicated the gospel to the average person on an entirely different level—not only could they hear the stories in their own English language, but they could see them acted out dramatically. The playwrights did not limit themselves to mere slavish representations of Biblical reenactments, they creatively added and interpreted towards their own didactic ends. The Genesis account of the first murder in which Cain slays his brother Abel consists of a mere thirteen-verses with three characters—God, Cain, and Abel, but is expanded in length and number of characters by the playwrights. Of the extant versions of the Cain and Abel plays, the shortest is the N-town Cain and Abel (171 lines of dialogue) and the longest is the Wakefield Mactatio Abel (473 lines). The N-town play remains fairly close to the Biblical account, while the Wakefield version seems more like the superimposition of the Biblical story onto daily medieval life—mentioning priests, kings, bailiffs, farthings, and a local quarry. I will compare the two plays—the N-town’s sober approach to the Biblical material with the Wakefield’s slapstick fights and vulgarity—yet both plays work in their distinctly different manners toward communicating a similar message to their audience.
Medieval mystery plays are cycles of plays that covered salvation history from the Creation to the Last Judgment, performed in England during the late middle ages. Of the four complete extant cycles, all include a play about Cain and Abel. I will compare only two of these plays—the N-town Cain and Abel and the Wakefield Mactatio Abel. The N-town cycle is not associated with a single town (N stands for the Latin nomen and acts as an instruction to insert the name of the town in which the play is being performed). Stephen Spector places the N-town plays in East Anglia, a fairly large area including Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, and Essex. The medieval playwrights take the brief thirteen-verse account from the fourth chapter of Genesis and expand it into a play—the N-town version is the shortest of the medieval Cain and Abel plays and the Wakefield version is the longest. The N-town play remains fairly close to the Biblical account, while the Wakefield version seems more like the superimposition of the Biblical story onto daily medieval life—mentioning priests, kings, bailiffs, farthings, and even a local quarry. Perhaps the N-town play is more conventional because it is a play written not for the use of a particular town, but for the use of many towns, while the Wakefield play augments and jests (even lewdly and with slapstick) in order to display its distinctive civic identity.